BJP’s new lows and a tradition of communal lexicon

Ramesh Bhiduri’s communal tirade is the latest episode in India’s declining parliamentary discourse.

WrittenBy:Jyoti Punwani
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BJP MP from South Delhi Ramesh Bhiduri let loose a barrage of abuse on BSP’s Kunwar Danish Ali in the Lok Sabha last week. In a letter to Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla, Ali said Bhiduri had hurled the “most foul, abusive invectives” at him. Among the flurry of epithets were “bhadwa (pimp), katwa (circumcised one), mullah ugravadi (Muslim terrorist), atankvadi (terrorist)”, his letter said. The incident was also captured in the Sansad TV telecast of the parliamentary proceedings.

Danish Ali’s letter to Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla.

Yet, the Congress MP seated in the speaker’s chair, Kodikunnil Suresh, didn’t see fit to silence Bhiduri. It was said in Suresh’s defence that he didn’t understand the term.

After the clip of the episode went viral, causing nationwide outrage, speaker Om Birla warned Bhiduri not to repeat his behaviour, thereby letting him go unpunished for using communal, insulting and vulgar slurs — in short, unparliamentary language — against a fellow MP. Interestingly, Birla had thought nothing of suspending five opposition MPs in the previous Lok Sabha session for minor reasons.  

If today’s speakers can be condemned for inaction, it may be worth remembering that we once had, as speaker of the Lok Sabha, a man who had defended on record the use of the epithet that Bhiduri shouted at Ali. ‘Katwa’, meaning circumcised, used derogatorily for Muslims in Hindi, has many versions in different Indian languages. In Marathi, the word used is ‘landya’. 

In 2002, Shiv Sena’s Manohar Joshi was elected speaker of the Lok Sabha. In those days, a speaker was expected to ensure sobriety in the language used by Lok Sabha members. After escorting him to the speaker’s chair, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee hoped Joshi would maintain the dignity of the House. Much was made of Joshi’s background as a school teacher. 

Joshi was elected unopposed. One wonders if all MPs would have supported him had they read his deposition in front of the BN Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry into the 1992-93 Mumbai riots. Joshi had been summoned as the spokesman of the Shiv Sena, and he had deposed in 1997, just five years before he was elected Speaker.  

The inflammatory content published in Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece Saamna during the riots were often discussed before the Commission. In its editorials written by Sena chief Bal Thackeray, Saamna routinely used the word ‘landya’ for Muslims. It was also a word frequently used by Mumbai’s policemen, even while addressing members of the Muslim community, witnesses told the Commission. 

This reporter was present in court when Manohar Joshi was asked during his cross-examination whether the use of the word ‘landya’ was justified. He replied that it was, if one saw the context in which it was used. When writing about matters such as the Radhabai Chawl incident, its use was justified, said Joshi. 

The Radhabai Chawl incident referred to the burning alive of six Hindus, including women and children, who were sheltering in a room, during the January 1993 phase of the Mumbai riots. The Muslims convicted by the trial court for the act were acquitted by the Supreme Court. But the incident itself was, as the Commission pointed out in its report, used by the Shiv Sena to arouse the sentiments of Hindus, and to engineer what came to be known even officially (by the police and the Maharashtra government) as a “Hindu backlash”. Thanks to the way it was highlighted, the term “Radhabai Chawl” continues to be the defining image of the Mumbai riots, a byword for Muslim violence against Hindus. 

By his answer, Joshi implied that Muslims were themselves to blame when Hindus used the word ‘landya’ against them. He graciously accepted, however, that it should not be used if Muslims were “likely to be hurt” by it. 

When he gave this answer, Joshi was the chief minister of Maharashtra. 

But ‘katwa’ wasn’t the only abuse that Bhiduri yelled at Danish Ali. In his letter, the BSP MP from Amroha said the other words directed against him were “bhadwa (pimp), mullah ugravadi (Muslim terrorist), atankvadi (terrorist)”. Such abuses have never been used by any MP against another MP in the House. But the mindset that regards Muslims as extremists and terrorists has been on display earlier in the Lok Sabha, most vividly when the 17th Lok Sabha convened after the last general elections. The House then echoed with the slogan ‘Jai Shree Ram’; it was raised by the newly-elected BJP MPs after they took their oath. That was a first for Parliament. MPs swearing to uphold the Constitution that declared India to be a secular country were shouting a slogan that proclaimed that they were Hindus. 

The choice of the slogan was telling. ‘Jai Shree Ram’ isn’t just another religious slogan. It was made into a rallying cry for Hindus during the Ayodhya movement. The enemy then was those who opposed the building of a Ram temple at the very spot where the Babri Masjid stood. These ‘Ram drohis’ (Ram traitors) were by definition ‘deshdrohis’ (traitors to the country), in the new lexicon of BJP leader LK Advani, who made the Hindu deity the symbol of the country’s heritage. The riots that broke out during the Ayodhya movement, as well as after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, saw Hindu rioters shout ‘Jai Shree Ram’ like a war cry while attacking Muslims. 

The slogan acquired new significance just before the 2019 elections. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee objected to its use by BJP campaigners in her state, and then BJP president Amit Shah used it with vengeance in his road show in Kolkata. 

By raising this slogan in Parliament after taking their oaths, the newly-elected BJP MPs were sending out a definite message: that they were there as representatives of Hindutva. The hallmark of Hindutva is animosity towards Muslims, who are often referred to obliquely by RSS leaders as the “enemy within”. 

While these slogans were raised, pro-tem speaker Virendra Kumar, who had been, ironically enough, union minister of state for minority affairs till the 2019 polls, said nothing; the prime minister smiled. 

From ‘Jai Shree Ram’ to ‘katwa’ and ‘mullah aatankwadi is not such a long distance, after all. 

During Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption movement in 2011, Kiran Bedi, one of its prominent faces, had been criticised for ridiculing MPs. The movement’s vociferous criticism of Parliament had been universally condemned as “lowering the dignity of the temple of democracy”. But the Parliament then hadn’t sunk to the depths the new Parliament is mired in at present. 

Alas! There is no one pointing that out to the people today.

Also see
article imageAfter BJP MP’s communal slur, BSP MP says ‘may consider leaving LS if Speaker doesn’t act’
article imageBSP MP Danish Ali gets Rahul Gandhi’s support, says ‘hatred will lose, love will win’

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